Think for a moment about how the typical car shopper goes about finding a vehicle in 2015.

They see a sleek commercial from a manufacturer – maybe on television, but almost as likely as a lead-in to watching Netflix online.

Next, they hit a third-party or dealer website, read reviews and compare features and pricing with similar models. Then, they figure out what their current trade-in is worth, check interest rates and calculate their monthly payment.

They walk into the dealership well-educated and with confidence. And, more often than not, they will sign on the dotted line to buy or lease a new vehicle.

But, a key element is missing from the online shopping experience, and it’s one that represents a significant opportunity for F&I departments. According to a recent study of 500 car shoppers by MakeMyDeal, 63% of customers would be more likely to purchase F&I products if they had the option to learn about them before finalizing their vehicle purchase.

It is time for the F&I department to join the rest of the automotive world and move more product and pricing information online.

A recent article by Gerry Gould from UDS emphasizes this clearly: “To deliver unparalleled customer service, we have to streamline our processes. That means the F&I team needs to take action by contacting customers as soon as possible.”

He adds: “They’ll be engaged throughout your more efficient process, and they’ll remember your store as the one that didn’t waste any of their time.”

What’s driving the need for online F&I?

Customers today are used to having everything at their fingertips. Online shopping has reshaped every phase of the business world, from how we purchase music, shop for a house, watch TV and even how we search for our next vehicle.

The technological revolution has changed customer expectations for just about everything, including how they want to shop for F&I products.

Consider these statistics from the MakeMyDeal study: 83% of study participants said they are interested in learning about F&I products before entering the dealership. And 71% indicated they would like to start that process online.

Most customers don’t want to stick around the dealership once they’ve made a purchase.

The MakeMyDeal survey says 54% simply wanted to sign for their car and leave. Spending a long time going through a list of aftermarket products isn’t how customers want to spend their time.

Consumers lack basic F&I product knowledge and that’s a huge problem for dealerships. MakeMyDeal research indicates 33% of respondents find the list of F&I products confusing. Forty-six percent who claimed to be familiar with vehicle service contracts did not pick the correct definition of the term.

Most consumers are not exposed to F&I products until they’ve already purchased the vehicle and negotiated a price. When they finally meet with the F&I Manager, it is with little product knowledge and even less desire to be there. An upgraded and enhanced digital experience beforehand will help.

Providing product and price information online will improve understanding prior to entering the dealership, and ultimately improve F&I closing rates.  

Even the most skeptical customers can become more predisposed to making a purchase when they have been educated about products and prices up front. This is underscored by the MakeMyDeal research that says 75% of respondents report being interested in learning from the dealership when they had a better understanding of F&I products.

What needs to change?

One of the largest obstacles preventing the move of the F&I process online is internal. A significant majority of today’s F&I managers believe the current system is the best way to close sales and drive profits.

It’s easy to understand why they feel this way. That’s how they’ve been trained. That’s how they’ve always done it. And they have been successful. Change can be scary, and frankly, it’s never easy.

Auto Nation CEO Mike Jackson touts how the No.1 dealership chain plans to use AutoNation Express, a system with full F&I website functionality.

AutoNation will offer it for all its stores by year end. It also announced it set a record of $1,515 in F&I revenue per sale. Would AutoNation risk reducing its earnings by offering online F&I?

Automotive retailers have shown they are smart and adaptable business people. The world has moved to an online shopping model and automotive retailing is no exception. F&I offices must adapt as well.

Brian Reed is the founder, president and CEO of F&I Express that provides electronic processing and e-commerce technology to the auto industry.